April break on the chopping block in school board vote tonight

Barring an unexpected change in direction, the Board of Education is expected to eliminate the April break and bring school back into session at its meeting tonight.

The board, which is meeting at 7 p.m. at North Street School, is taking this action after Hurricane Sandy wiped out six days from the school calendar. That was the entire allotment set aside as “snow days” before winter even began, and since the district must be in session for a minimum of 180 days to meet a state mandate, the board said last week that it needed to be better safe than sorry by adding back school days in case more bad weather comes.

This was first discussed at the board’s Nov. 8 meeting and the vote is expected tonight. Already schools have opened on the previously scheduled off-day this past Monday, which had been set aside for Veterans Day, and the board will be looking to add to that with tonight’s expected vote to bring class back into session from April 15 to 19. The district currently has 181 days scheduled, one above the minimum, but that leaves no cushion if there are frequent or prolonged weather-related school closures, as there have been each of the past three years.

Board Chairman Leslie Moriarty said that the April break had been listed on the calendar already as something that could potentially be reduced or eliminated if needed and that parents and staff knew it was a possibility going into the year.

“We need to do what’s in the best interest of the children, and I think April has very good education days,” Ms. Moriarty said.

Having school on those days is not the only option the board has before it, but it seemed to be the favored one after an unofficial straw poll of the members at the Nov. 8 meeting. An alternative would be adding the days onto the end of the calendar, extending the last day of school past the previously scheduled June 24. However, since those days would be during the summer, board members worried there would be limited educational value to them and that more work could be accomplished by having the days restored in April.

Board member Jennifer Dayton noted that extending the calendar close to July could interfere with summer programs that begin almost immediately after June 24.

“The disruption for families sending their kids away is going to be enormous,” Ms. Dayton said.

Board member Steve Anderson suggested eliminating the winter recess scheduled from Feb. 11 through 15, saying that those days could be used for extra preparation for the upcoming Connecticut Mastery Tests (CMT) and Connecticut Academic Performance Tests (CAPT) in March.

“Our overriding factor in drafting a calendar is the effect on the education of the children,” Mr. Anderson said. “The kids have lost five days of the 111 teaching days they get before the testing cycle starts. In rough numbers they’ve lost 5% of their teachable days. I would be a big fan of recapturing those days immediately in the February break and say we’re going to get those full 111 days in before the testing cycle starts. That, to me, is keeping the education of the children first.”

Another person who had concerns about losing the April break was Cathy Delehanty, chairman of the Greenwich Education Association. She said the break was “the one break that was the most essential.”

“After the long march to prepare for CMTs,” Ms. Delehanty said. “Both teachers and students need that break to rest and recharge.”

However, Mr. Anderson’s motion to eliminate the February break and not the April one failed by a 2-6 vote after board members worried that it was too close to that time for parents and teachers who had made vacation plans. Board Vice Chairman Barbara O’Neill, though, said she would be open to eliminating the February break in future district calendars for the reason Mr. Anderson cited and because she felt it was a bit of a disruption to instruction to have another extended break so soon after the Christmas break.

Board members said that it was important to act quickly on this and not wait until January or later to make a decision, even if it meant calling for school days that wouldn’t be necessary to meet the 180-day requirement. Board member Adriana Ospina said it was difficult to make a decision now because the board didn’t know yet how many days it would need, but others urged proactive steps to give people enough time.

“We need to let people know where we’re going with this,” board member Nancy Kail said. “We need to do this quickly. I think people are nervous and want to know what’s happening so they can make or change plans.”

Ms. Moriarty recalled that the last time the board had to cancel the April break to make up for having had too many snow days, the decision was made in March, which didn’t give parents and staff much time to react and led to significant absences on the part of both students and teachers. She noted that was forced by snow days happening late in the season and said it made more sense for the board to act now and not push the problem until later in the hope that there would be no need to restore days because there were no further cancellations.

“If we’re going to have school in April, it’s better to identify this sooner rather than later,” Ms. Moriarty said.

In remarks at the Nov. 8 meeting, PTA Council President Lisa Beth Savitz said that with extreme weather incidents like Sandy and the snowstorm that hit last week becoming more common, the board should “truly put all options on the table for future years.”

“It is not enough to pay lip service to public opinion and then return to the status quo,” Ms. Savitz said.

Ms. Delehanty said that after two straight years of a hurricane and a major snowstorm interfering with district plans, there needs to be a “serious look at how we set the calendar.” She urged the board to remember the need for days spent in class to prepare for the CMT, which was the reason the board placed the February break where it did.

With all the options available to the board, Ms. Delehanty said that “as long as teachers are not held financially accountable by your decisions for any changes made,” there will be support from the GEA.

 

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